There is an article in the October 12, 2010 issue of the New York Times titled Offshore Wind Power Line Wins Praise, and Backing. In that article, Matthew Wald describes an announcement by by Google and a New York financial firm named Good Energies indicating plans to build an undersea cable along the eastern seaboard of the United States.
The project backers describe their goal as enabling off-shore wind projects because the cable will serve as a gathering point that will allow easier connections for projects located in areas more than 3 miles off shore. The cable will run 15-20 mile off shore in a shallow trench. Having the cable already installed will ostensibly allow projects to connect up to that cable and then come on shore at just four identified sites in southern Virginia, Delaware, southern New Jersey and northern New Jersey.
The project is getting enthusiastic responses from Jon Wellinghoff, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Melinda Pierce, the deputy director for national campaigns for the Sierra Club.
Here are the paragraphs that caught my attention:
Yet even before any wind farms were built, the cable would channel existing supplies of electricity from southern Virginia, where it is cheap, to northern New Jersey, where it is costly, bypassing one of the most congested parts of the North American electric grid while lowering energy costs for northern customers.
Generating electricity from offshore wind is far more expensive than relying on coal, natural gas or even onshore wind. But energy experts anticipate a growing demand for the offshore turbines to meet state requirements for greater reliance on local renewable energy as a clean alternative to fossil fuels.
That immediately made me remember a conversation that I had with a Dominion Resources executive in the early 1990s while we were sailing off the coast of Delaware as volunteers for the Naval Academy command seamanship training squadron. We happened to be drifting along in the early evening without much to do. Dinner was over, the dishes were washed and the sea was almost calm enough for water skiing. Ron was describing his company’s efforts to push electricity deregulation in Virginia. Dominion Resources wanted to be able to access the far more lucrative electricity markets in the PJM (Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland) area.
At the time, electricity in Virginia, which was still under cost-of-service regulation, sold for about 4-5 cents per kilowatt hour. Exactly the same quantity of the same physical product sold for 12 cents in New Jersey – just a few hundred miles away. Ron was bemoaning the fact that state regulators would not allow Virginia generated power to be exported to other markets. He also described how the next step after deregulation would be building more transmission capacity so his company would be able to a move larger amount of coal and nuclear generated power into the more lucrative markets.
Of course, as we both knew and discussed at the time, building transmission lines is not easy, especially in heavily populated areas. I hope you can see why the NY Times story brought memories of that conversation flooding back to me. It gave me an ah-ha moment – the transmission difficulty issue could be finessed by moving the cable off-shore and getting it paid for with the help of federal money that was supposed to enable cleaner power that was not dependent on fossil fuel combustion.
Once an off-shore electric power cable is installed, how will anyone be able to tell if the electricity is coming from an off shore turbine or a coal fired power plant in southern Virginia that is getting its coal from a mine that was once a mountain? Since very few people ever venture out into off-shore waters, there will not even be any of the questioning folks who notice and complain when highly visible wind turbines are not spinning – as they are wont to do 60-80% of the time they exist.
Interestingly enough, one of the companies that pushed for electricity deregulation in Virginia has almost the same name as Google’s partner in this project. Good Energy (which sounds very much like Good Energies) is a energy management consultant whose name almost made me think that there really was a multi-decade plan involved in the effort to site an off-shore transmission path.
“Deal Journal” (a Wall Street Journal Blog) post dated October 12, 2010 – Google’s Wind Project Got Lift From Vail Ski Trip. (Note: Not surprisingly, “deal” fans seem to like the concept of making huge sums of money by building transmission lines off shore.)